Abbott moves to stifle public service free speech

Michaela Banerji was sacked from her immigration department job after criticising refugee policy on Twitter.

The Tony Abbott government has moved to crush the right of free speech for federal public servants. In new guidelines issued by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) on social media policy, employees are threatened with harsh discipline if they are "critical or highly critical of the department, the minister or the prime minister" on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr, blogs or elsewhere.

The policy applies to statements made either at work or in a personal capacity, even if made anonymously. Fellow public servants are being pressured to dob in any workmates they may suspect of making critical comments in any forum.

The guidelines say: "If an employee becomes aware of another employee who is engaging in conduct that may breach this policy, there is an expectation that the employee will report the conduct to the department."

If public servants have been found to have breached the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct, they could be sacked. Furthermore, the PM&C department has now declared its guidelines are secret, and will not discuss the matter with the media.

These guidelines are an outrageous attack on the civil rights of public servants. What right does the government have to control the expression of opinion of public employees in their private life, for example?

Don't public servants have an equal right with other citizens to engage in political activity, including written or verbal protests against intolerable government policies, such as the current Coalition government's actions on the environment, refugees or welfare cutbacks?

These guidelines are a direct attack on union rights in the workplace. As a former delegate in the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), I am alarmed that these new restrictions could severely limit the ability of unionists to organise freely inside government departments.

How will this new policy affect the right of union delegates to communicate with their members, especially in matters which inevitably involve conflict with the government of the day? How would we have been able to organise for the Your Rights at Work campaign in the mid-2000s, for example?

How will this new policy affect the right of government employees to be publicly active in political campaigns outside work, or even to merely express support for them? This new policy further tightens restrictions on public servants' democratic rights, which have already been narrowed in recent years.

"PM&C's policy also cites the case of former Immigration Department worker Michaela Banerji, who was sacked last year after she used a pseudonymous Twitter account to criticise refugee detention policies," the Age reported on April 8. "Late last month, the Federal Court's Justice Steven Rares dismissed her appeal against her sacking.

"Ms Banerji wrote to Attorney-General George Brandis on Tuesday, saying the bureaucracy's policies on using Facebook and Twitter were 'a "trip-wire" for public servants in that, while on the one hand the guidelines state that public servants are encouraged to enter into robust discussion, they are in fact, not permitted to criticise government as private citizens.'

"She asked him to declare 'that all public servants, as a class of persons, enjoy the constitutionally implied freedom of political communication in their capacity as private citizens, whatever the platform of expression'."

The hypocrisy of the government and its right-wing backers on this question of free speech is breathtaking. Newly appointed Human Rights Commissioner, and former head of the neoliberal think tank Institute of Public Affairs, Tim Wilson, supported the new guidelines, saying: "Ultimately, public servants voluntarily and knowingly choose to accept these limits on their conduct when they accept employment."

Compare this stand to the howls of outrage over the supposed denial of right-wing NewsCorp columnist Andrew Bolt's "freedom of speech" after his conviction for racial discrimination under Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and Brandis's attempts to repeal that section of the law.

Unions and the community need to take a firm stand against these new restrictions on the free speech of public servants. This attack is part of the preparations by the government to launch huge assaults on workers and the Australian public, and to try to limit the ability of workers to be involved in defending the community and themselves.